Degree Name

Doctor of Education in Leadership (Ed.D.)

Type of Paper/Work



Thomas L. Fish

Second Advisor

Sarah J. Noonan

Third Advisor

Amy Carole Schlieve


This qualitative case study examined one specific rural school district where many of the students live in poverty. The purpose of the study was to develop a deeper understanding of the learning disability (LD) identification process as implemented in a high-poverty rural setting. In working toward this purpose, I explored the question: How do teachers in poor, rural school districts make LD eligibility decisions? I also delved into several related themes including the beliefs that teachers hold about poverty and how it affects their students in the school setting, what teachers believe about their role in a high-poverty setting, and how they determine if a child has a learning disability or if other factors are contributing to their academic difficulties.

Eleven teachers, both special education and general education, were interviewed. Analysis of the data revealed the prevalence of some stereotypical beliefs regarding poverty, including the belief that hard work overcomes poverty, the belief that schools can and should “fix the poverty problem,” and a complacency regarding the poverty they witness in their school. In addition, the data revealed that there was a mismatch between teachers’ middle class values and background and the social class experiences of their students. Educators in high poverty schools viewed poor student performance more as a problem centered in student and family circumstances rather than as a condition created by inadequate resources and opportunities available to children and families.

The findings revealed use of a traditional, Intelligence Quotient (IQ)-Achievement discrepancy model to determine if a child has a learning disability. Critics of this assessment procedure deem it a “wait to fail” model because few interventions may be tried before referring students for disability assessment and services. Participants reported that Response to Intervention (RTI) requirements had not been implemented. Furthermore, participants conveyed that their deliberations do not typically include the legally required consideration that other factors (such as poverty) may be the primary reason that the student is struggling.

Recommendations include providing educational activities to challenge stereotypical beliefs about people living in poverty, considering socioeconomic reform in discussions about school improvement, supporting teachers in their efforts to meet the needs of all students in their classrooms, and implementing assessment methods designed to help students receive the assistance needed as early as possible.

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

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